Family Dispute Resolution: A Brief Summary of Child Development, Attachment Theory and Parental Alienation

By Dr Brian Williams
Ph.D, LLB (1st Class Honours), FDRP, NMAS Mediator, Child-Inclusive Mediator and Counsultant
Principal – Premier Mediation Australia
Child Development

Some Theories Related to Child Development
Children generally move through age-related stages of development and achieve different goals at each developmental stage.Put very succinctly, some of the normal expectations at these stages are as follows:
From birth to one year:At this stage a child not only needs to have his/her physical needs met, but also needs to develop confidence in other people, and have a secure attachment with a caregiver. This means that a caregiver(s) can effectively sooth the child, but can also allow the child to explore his/her environment.

From 1 to 3 year old:At this stage a child is starting to develop abilities and routines, that should be supported and nurtured.
From 3 to 5 year old:At this stage a child develops confidence in himself/herself and in this/her relationships with others.
From 5 to 12 year old:At this age a child begins thinking and problem-solving on their own.
From 12 to 18 year old:The rapidly developing young people in this age group are dealing with developing confidence in their own identity.

Potential Impacts on Children
Those working with vulnerable children need to remain very aware that such children can suffer considerable setbacks in all these stages of development if affected by family distress or highly-conflicted parents.
For example:
From 1 to 3 year old : A child may form an insecure or disorganised attachment from caregivers, or be overcontrolled by a parent. Such a child may become unsettled or overly clingy, and have delayed developmental milestones.
From 3 to 5 year old: A child may be overly praised or overly controlled and criticised by a conflicted parent, leaving the child emotionally withdrawn, anxious or aggressive when playing.
From 5 to 12 year old: This may be an age where a conflicted parent starts influencing a child to dislike or resist the other parent – resulting in parent/child alienation.
From 12 to 18 year old: Conflicting parents may have vastly different interpretations of what’s best for their child at this age, leading to escalating tensions and disrespect. Increased risk-taking behaviours by the teenager, depression and anxiety may result.

Attachment Theory 
In broad terms, the most significant feature of attachment theory is that young children need to develop a relationship with at least one primary caregiver for normal social and emotional development to occur.A healthy attachment should include a balance of two things:
– A capacity of a parent to soothe and comfort the child when the child is in need – A capacity of a parent to allow the child to explore their environment.
It is from such a secure attachment that a child learns a sense of confidence in themselves, and learns to identify what they are feeling. From such experiences, they also ultimately come to manage their own feelings.

Parental Alienation/Child Alienation 
This describes a process through which a child becomes estranged from one of his or her parents after separation or divorce, even though there is no clear reason for this estrangement. A child in these circumstances may refuse contact, and display disrespect and hostility towards the target parent. Although this can be a complex area, the cause of this type of alienation is often attributed to the influence being exerted on the child by a conflicted co-parent. As an Family Dispute Resolution Practitioner will be attempting to have the parties formulate a parenting arrangement or plan, alienation will be a relevant issue that needs to be addressed.A family facing this issue can be well served by family counselling, although this process must be well handled by an experienced professional. It has been suggested that in some cases it can do more harm than good to only provide counselling to the individual child, as this could serve to reinforce their thinking. Likewise, only working with one parent could bring about a similar result. Therefore, in many circumstances, it is much better if the child and both parents are involved in counselling.From a risk averse perspective, an experienced counsellor should also be able to detect and differentiate if a case of ‘child alienation’ is not in fact ‘child estrangement’, that has left a child uncomfortable with a parent because of something that the parent has done.

Family Systems Theories
These theories – initially generated by Dr Murray Bowen – suggests that individuals cannot be understood in isolation from one another, but rather as a part of their family, which in turn, is an emotional unit and system of interconnected and interdependent individuals. This means that a person’s behaviour is inextricably connected by the attitudes they have learned from their family. And a change in one person’s functioning can be predictably followed by reciprocal changes in the functioning of others.Although this may work reasonably well in a balanced family system, the same cannot be said in a family operating under high levels of stress or conflict. For example, if one parent becomes depressive and cannot function normally, the other parent may need to take up more responsibilities to pick up the slack. Although this change of roles may provide some temporary stability to the family, it may also push the family towards a different equilibrium – leading to dysfunction in the longer term.

Kinship Networks

These networks refer to the kinship care provided to children who cannot live with their parents. Such care is generally provided by relatives (often grandparents) or a member of a child’s social network. The Department of Health and Human Services in Victoria has declared that kinship care is the preferred placement type for children who cannot live with their parents. It is beneficial for any professional person working with children associated with kinship care to identify this care early in the process, and to also appreciate the ways such reunification can offer children family support, an appreciation of their culture, and a sense of belonging in their community.

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